From Buckeye grate to Buckeye great, LeBron proves you can go home again
JUL 11, 2014 2:34p ET
Over the last 10 days or so, as the world awaited word of where LeBron James would write the next chapter of his basketball career, anxious speculation was abound concerning The Letter and whether Dan Gilbert's seething takedown of James following LeBron's departure from Cleveland four years ago could keep Akron's prodigal son from returning to the Cavs this summer.
Ultimately, of course, Gilbert's raging critique of LeBron's personal shortcomings and his not-so-solemn vow that LeBron would never find success outside of Northeast Ohio did no such thing, with James intimating in his coming home announcement Friday that Gilbert's letter and the sentiments expressed therein were water under the bridge.
No doubt, LeBron's willingness to forgive and forget -- or to at least hold in abeyance whatever hard feelings he still might have for Gilbert -- was welcome news for the Cavs owner, who couldn't have possibly foreseen a return of the once and future king when he penned that ill-advised bulletin in July 2010. But lost in all of the clamor about Gilbert's imprudent slandering his team's then-former savior is the idea that maybe Gilbert, for all the backtracking he's had to do in the years since, had a point.
When LeBron left Cleveland the first time, he was a first-class basketball player, already dubbed by many as one of the best to play the game, but at that time, James' personal development lagged behind his unmatched on-court talents. Though it may have been harsh for Gilbert to pan LeBron as "selfish" and "narcissistic" and "disloyal" for the manner in which he "took his talents to South Beach," there was also more than a shred of truth to Gilbert's bitter caterwauling.
Long before "The Decision," there was a sense that LeBron, a kid who was raised in the spotlight, had yet to have a chance to truly grow up. The thought was well-hidden by the Cavs' relative success and James' God-like status in Cleveland, but the signs were there.
There was the feeling among some that LeBron undermined coach Paul Silas' authority early in his career, ultimately leading to Silas' firing in 2005. There were the accusations by former teammate Shaquille O'Neal -- perhaps not a beacon of maturity, himself -- that James did the same with Mike Brown later in LeBron's first go-around as the Cavs walked on eggshells in their efforts to keep LeBron happy and, in doing so, keep him in town.
After being eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the 2009 playoffs, LeBron left the court without congratulating the victors and was met with harsh accusations of poor sportsmanship. The following year, O'Neal would later say, James was "indifferent" in a blowout loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Then there was the report that Nike confiscated a home video of LeBron being dunked on by a teenager at a camp -- a decree that may not have come from James himself but hurt his reputation all the same.
Even after he'd left for Miami, LeBron's standing took a hit in the midst of the promise of "not one, not two, not three ..." championships and the "bump-gate" saga with Erik Spoelstra, each of which tarnished his name during the Heat's early struggles in 2010. All of these things did not make James a bad person or a prima donna any more so than any of the league's other top-billed stars, but they highlighted how much potential for growth was there.
So now, here we are, in the most unfathomable of situations, with James returning to Cleveland as scores of Cavs fans rush to replace the LeBron jerseys they so eagerly burned -- supposedly along with the bridge tying James to the Cavs -- when he left. LeBron is coming back with a little more baggage than he exited with, including two championship rings and two more MVP awards, but his most noticeable acquisition in the last four years might be a renewed sense of self-awareness that he lacked during his previous stint with his hometown team.
In his letter announcing his commitment to the Cavaliers, James described his experience in Miami as a transformative one -- the equivalent of a traditional prep star's time in college, and not just because of his improvement from a physical standpoint. "These past four years helped raise me into who I am," James said in the piece. "I became a better player and a better man."
And it's because LeBron has grown so much as a man in the last four years that he was able to make a decision, in making nice with Cleveland, that truly was best for him, his family and his future.
“The LeBron who left Cleveland in 2010 would have never been able to forgive Gilbert and forgive Cleveland in the way that the present-day James apparently has ...”
The LeBron who left Cleveland in 2010 would have never been able to forgive Gilbert and forgive Cleveland in the way that the present-day James apparently has, if only because he did not, at that time, have the emotional wherewithal to do so. But now James, four years wiser, is coming home with a clear conscience and a heart set on little more than fulfilling a promise to a city that meant more to him -- even at its worst -- than basketball ever could.
LeBron's homecoming speaks volumes of his evolution as a human being in the days since he hung the Cavs out to dry, and while the championships and MVPs and all the great memories he'll take from Miami are certainly nice for his resume and his trophy case, his maturation as a person will serve him better than any of those other accolades in his quest to become the greatest ever and his city of Cleveland's savior once again.
The most vilified player in the game after his Miami heel turn, LeBron has, in four years, become arguably the least hateable player in the league, with virtually any sense of schadenfreude derived from the failings of his youth now a thing of the past.
LeBron left Cleveland broken and came back whole again -- evidence that the move was necessary in the first place. And while the thought process behind Gilbert's foolhardy takedown of James will never be completely justified, the underlying sentiment contained therein may have helped pave the way for the return of a better LeBron James the second time around.